Monday, March 9, 2015

Pre-Code Capsules: FLYING HIGH (1931)

Bert Lahr is one of the one-hit wonders of movie acting. That one hit so overshadowed a storied theatrical career, which climaxed with his starring role in the American premiere of Waiting For Godot, that his son, the acclaimed critic and biographer John Lahr, titled his father's story Notes On a Cowardly Lion. Except for theater historians, Lahr is now identified exclusively for his role in The Wizard of Oz. That's not for want of trying on Lahr's part. He was one of many successful stage comedians summoned to Hollywood in the early talkie ear to recreate Broadway hits. Lahr's was Flying High, a George White production adapted to the screen by director Charles Reisner and dance director Busby Berkeley. Lahr plays Rusty, an eccentric inventor if not an idiot savant who's built an "aerocropter" to compete in a big air show. Pat O'Brien plays a huckster who convinces Guy Kibbee (here married to future gossip maven Hedda Hopper) to invest in the unpromising looking device. Rusty is distracted from his work by marriage-mad Pansy Potts (Charlotte Greenwood), who ultimately goes up in the doomsday machine with him in the film's slapstick climax. Greenwood was a more established star at the time and more than holds her own with Lahr on the slapstick side. She wins our Pre-Code Play of the Film award for a scene in which Lahr repeatedly fends off her amorous advances by pushing her onto a couch. The long-legged and limber Greenwood sells the shove by yanking her legs up all the way to either side of her head, as if spreading them for her beloved, before hopping like a bunny for another round with him. As for Lahr, if 1931 movie audiences weren't asking what the fuss was about, as they did about many of the so-called nut comics imported from Broadway, then I will. He is profoundly unfunny. His schtick consists of an allegedly funny voice, a habit of repeating himself ("Put 'er there, boy, put 'er there!!") and, if not a catchphrase then a catch-noise for when he's alarmed. "Nyah nyah nyah!" is my best approximation of it. In short, it looks like no accident that Lahr scored his only real screen success when he played something other than a human being. Leaving him out of it, Flying High's main historical interest is as another prelude to Berkeley's epochal work at Warner Bros. a few years later. He's nearly there already, staging many mass formations for the overhead camera, but he doesn't yet have full control of the frame -- the angles often seem wrong somehow -- and hasn't yet broken the boundaries of a film set performance space to launch his fancies into full flight. If one scene sums this film up, it's the one where Lahr stumbles into the middle of one of the Berkeley numbers and flails about cluelessly. Everyone involved in this picture had some learning about movies yet to do.


hobbyfan said...

It happens, Sam, that quoting some of Lahr's dialogue reminds that he was the inspiration for Hanna-Barbera's Snagglepuss, nearly 30 years after "Flying High".

Underappreciated? Seeing as how I've only seen Wizard of Oz a few times, I cannot rightly judge.

Samuel Wilson said...

I'm almost embarrassed to answer this, but as I remember him Snagglepuss is more refined and effete than Bert Lahr is here. The voices don't match at all compared to, say, Peter Potamus's evocation of Joe E. Brown, and I don't recall Snagglepuss repeating himself compulsively the way Lahr does.